"You can do anything you want if you have a supportive work environment, the encouragement of a partner, and a network of friends and colleagues to keep you engaged, keep you laughing and keep you thinking about where your time and energy can make a difference. These are the things that make one’s life rich and rewarding."
Marie Gordon is a family lawyer, activist, educator and author whose career has been characterized by a tireless commitment to fairness, justice and equality. Marie has used the law, the classroom, the written word and many social justice initiatives in an effort to better the lives of women and families in Canada.
Marie Gordon was born in Montreal, Quebec in 1954 but spent her childhood in Medicine Hat. She fondly recalls days exploring coulees, joining her father for hikes in search of dinosaur bones and hoodoos, and skiing in the Cypress Hills. She treasures memories of a supportive home where her parents encouraged Marie and her two sisters to consider differing views and to express them in lively discussions around the dinner table.
The family later moved to Calgary, where Marie completed high school. She started undergraduate studies at the University of Calgary and completed her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science (Honours) at McGill University. In the early 1970s, McGill University was a hotbed of interesting speakers, professors, newspapers and progressive ideas. The era of the Vietnam War and a time of formative struggles for gender equality created a rich intellectual and political environment that fed Marie’s enthusiasm for social justice and her active commitment to feminism.
It was this interest in social justice and gender equality that led Marie to consider law as a career. She was intrigued by the possibility of achieving social justice on a broader scale. Marie entered the University of Alberta’s law program in 1976. While women had been in the minority in law school up to then, Marie was part of a surge of female law students that led to gender balance in classrooms within a few years. This wave of female lawyers would have a profound effect on the legal landscape in Alberta and Marie would play a key role.
After graduating with a law degree in 1979, Marie was called to the Alberta bar in 1980. From the beginning, she was drawn to family law as a fascinating intersection of legal theory and its effects on people’s lives. At this time, family law was not considered a prestigious or desirable area of practice, with most law graduates aspiring to business, constitutional or criminal law. Since then, in part due to Marie’s role as an advocate and educator, family law has risen in prominence to become an attractive area of law to practice.
Before entering law school, Marie worked for the Calgary Status of Women Action Committee, researching gender equality issues. As a law student, she worked for Student Legal Services. One of the areas where she saw an enduring need for reform was in marriage breakdown, where the economic consequences of separation and divorce hurt women and children disproportionately.
She realized that to achieve reforms and to ensure those reforms were real and lasting solutions, it was important to be able to demonstrate the scope and scale of the problem and show what exactly needed fixing. Drawing on the great body of research by academics across Canada, Marie joined others in advocating for a number of reforms to family law, both in the substance of the law and in efforts to improve access for those needing to have the benefit of improved laws.
In 1996, Marie helped found the Protection and Restraining Order Project (PROP), an organization focused on cases of spousal violence and high conflict child custody disputes. Operating solely on grants and private donations, PROP hired a full time staff lawyer to handle restraining order requests exclusively, for a nominal fee. The Protection and Restraining Order Project helped many clients until 2004, when the Government of Alberta brought in the Protection Against Family Violence Act. This Act made the obtaining of legal protections much simpler, less expensive and more responsive to families caught in abusive and difficult situations.
The second major reform concerned spousal support payments. In 1998, Marie presented a paper entitled “Glass Ceilings in Spousal Support” to the National Family Law Programme. The paper argued that support levels in Canada were too low. At the time, judges routinely set support payments without any formal guidelines and without always considering the unique challenges faced by women wanting to re-enter the workforce after having stayed home to raise children. In response to continued discussion on the issue, the federal Department of Justice created an Advisory Working Group on Family Law, with Marie as one of its 13 members. In 2005, Professors Carol Rogerson and Rollie Thompson released the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines, which offers assistance to divorcing spouses, lawyers, mediators and judges, and have led to more predictable and consistent support levels across Canada. No less importantly, they have given all parties in divorce proceedings a tool for reducing support-related court costs.
Marie has been prolific in her writing of articles and papers on family law. Scholars, judges and lawyers often cite her work. Since 1999, Marie has been a frequent presenter to judges at the National Judicial Institute on a wide range of family law topics. She is a highly-regarded presenter and keynote speaker at provincial and national conferences.
For most of her 37-year career as a lawyer, Marie has also been a teacher of law, starting in 1982 with a one-year stint in New Zealand, followed by posts at Athabasca University and the University of Alberta. She relishes the opportunity to inspire, encourage and mentor the law students in her classes. She wants to infect them with her authentic passion for her work as a lawyer and she looks forward to introducing them to new ideas and receiving their feedback in return. Above all, she feels rewarded when she knows her students have learned what it means to be not just a lawyer, but also an engaged and caring community member with the power to effect positive change.
Marie is proud to be part of the army of family lawyers who devote their spare time to community causes. Some of Marie’s notable efforts in a very crowded field include founding the Family Law A-Fair, which promotes an understanding of family law practice for law students. She is also President of the Board of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family and continues to work with the Edmonton Community Legal Centre as a Board member and legal clinic volunteer. Marie has also been a long-time supporter of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. Over the years Marie has also been involved with the Canadian Bar Association, the Legal Education Society of Alberta and is a Fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers. She is a passionate proponent of collaborative family law and of using less destructive ways for family law clients to resolve their parenting and financial issues.
Marie has been honoured with the LEAF Edmonton Recognition Award; Women in Law Leadership Award; the University of Alberta Faculty of Law’s Pringle Royal Teaching Excellence Award; the University of Alberta Alumni Honour Award and the Alberta Centennial Medal.
For Marie, being a lawyer is a privilege and a thoroughly rewarding way to make a living. She has cherished the challenge of guiding people through very difficult times in their lives and seeing them emerge at the other end, not just surviving, but thriving.
Executive Director, The Alberta Order of Excellence